Saturday, December 21, 2019

Christmas Bird Count - Florida Style

Last weekend, I did the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pennypack Park, just like I've done for the past 7 years. And, just like other years, the weather was crappy and the birds were common. Don't get me wrong, I like contributing to the Audubon's 120 years of bird data but it's not the most exciting day of birding ever. This year, I had an idea - what if I volunteered for another CBC count? What if that count was in Florida? Genius!

Lucky for me, the Harns Marsh CBC was scheduled for today AND . . . Connie and I were scheduled to visit BJ and Dave starting yesterday. Harns Marsh is only 45 minute drive from BJ's. I contacted the person in charge and got myself in on the count. I met Charly and Meg at 6:45 AM in the parking lot at the marsh. We counted 68 birds and, for me at least, they were way sexier than my hometown birds at Pennypack.

Take this Snail Kite for instance. This is an uncommon bird that can only survive by eating certain kinds of snails. The Kite's bill is adapted to eating only the snails. Harn's Marsh is lousy with the snails and therefore, we saw this Snail Kite along the edge of the marsh. Jackpot.

Snail Kite
Another bird that eats the snails is the Limpkin. Limpkins can also eat other food like worms and other critters that live along the edge of the water. Harn's Marsh has plenty of these birds. They are pretty shy and move slowly. This one flew past us.

Harn's Marsh is also a place to find Gray-headed Swamphens, an introduced species from Asia. Birders like to come here to add them to their life lists. I did that exact thing last year. This year, we saw plenty of them.

Gray-headed Swamphen
Sandhill Cranes are common in this part of Florida. We see them in the marshes, in the Walmart parking lot and on the golf courses. At Harn's Marsh, the Cranes usually stay in the marsh but today, 11 of them were up on the path. We saw the group interacting from afar.

Sandhill Cranes
As we approached, the Cranes were not afraid. We ended up surrounded by them. Here is a cell phone selfie video showing how close they were to us. 

My 400 mm camera lens could only capture the head of this bird squawking. 

Sandhill Crane
We saw a few Bald Eagles flying around but then I saw one perch in a tree. When I went over to take a photo, I was surprised to find another bird in the tree. Here is the happy couple. She is on the right - a larger bird than her hubby on the left. 

The Happy Couple
Roseate Spoonbills are iconic birds of the mangroves in Florida. I was surprised that we found one in the marsh. This bird was hanging out with a mixed bag of waders. You can see why they are called "rose" and "spoonbills" in this photo. 

Roseate Spoonbill
The biggest surprise of the day was spotting this River Otter right at the water's edge. He just looked at us for a few minutes before returning to his search for fish. 

River Otter
We don't get this stuff at Pennypack for sure. All in all, a good day of citizen science. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

More on Ecuador

Hummers and Antpittas were not the only birds that we saw on our trip. Ecuador is home to other fantastic and fantastical birds. One bird that I have really wanted to see since I first saw a picture in a magazine is the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. This is a black beauty in the Cotinga family that has some interesting adaptations. The feathers on the bird's head form an umbrella hairdo. Males have a long "wattle" which is similar to a Tom turkey only much longer with more feathers. You can see the wattle hanging over the branch in this photo. 

Long-Wattled Umbrellabird
I was hoping to see one of these birds but never imagined that we would see 13 of them flying around the farm fields! The wattle is so long that it swings when the bird walks along the branch. 

Long-Wattled Umbrellabird
Umbrella birds are the type of bird that uses "leks" like the Greater Sage Grouse that I saw in Colorado. Each morning, all of the males gather in one area to show off to each other and determine who is the king of the flock. Umbrella birds do a little dance and actually flare out the feathers on their wattle when a female is close by. you can see it here.

Long-Wattled Umbrellabird
Unfortunately for me, the weather was overcast with off and on rain. Not great for bird photos, but a perfect opportunity for me to try to be funny. Here I am with my own umbrella and Umbrellabird. I couldn't resist. 

Another bird in the Cotinga family that many birders want to see is the Cock-of-the-Rock. Unlike the Umbrellabird which is black, the Cock-of-the-Rock is bright red. Like the Umbrellabird, Cock-of-the-Rock males gather each morning at a lek to show off to each other. The lek that we went to was part of Angel's tour. We arrived before dawn to gather in a bird blind so that we didn't disturb the birds as they arrived. This is the top bird in the lek. He had the best perch and chased of many of the other males that tried to get too close. 

Both species are pretty large birds and easy to see which is why they need to be protected from local hunters. Having Angel and other local guides helps to protect the birds and educate the local people of the value of the lek site too. Our tour group paid each of the local guides $20 per person to see the birds which is quite a bit more money than they can make farming or hunting. A win-win for sure. 

Other interesting birds of central and south America include the Toucans, Toucanettes, Aracari and Barbets. We saw a few species but only got photos of some. These two were easy to photograph since they were munching on bananas at our hotel's bird feeders. 


Believe me, I could post many more bird photos from Ecuador but birds were not the only subjects for photography. We also saw some animals, reptiles and plants that you may enjoy seeing. We saw many butterflies. Here are two species in the "glass wing" family. You can see right through the wing. 

Our group is not afraid of snakes. In fact, we hope to see snakes when we are birding. We found 2 species in the rain forest. The first was this Green Vine Snake. It really looks like a vine. She was pretty approachable and completely harmless. 

Green Vine Snake
This snake was also very approachable but the opposite of harmless. This is the Choco Hognose Viper. I don't know how Marty spotted this snake. He was completely camoflauged surrounded by leaves. Our guide used a stick to move the leaves away so that we could get a better look. Check out those eyes! He is looking right at the camera. 

Choco Hognose Viper
Other reptiles that we encountered included several species of frogs. This guy was my shower buddy. He would come in and out of the bathroom window at night. Cute right? 

My shower buddy
There are lots of lizards too. This one was right outside of the hotel entrance. It took me a few seconds to actually see it even when Todd was pointing right at it. It is 2 feet long and still undetectable. Can you see it? 

The rain forest is home to Howler Monkeys. These primates are easy to find since they spend alot of time howling which can be heard for miles. This dude was upset that we were on the trail beneath him. 

Howler Monkey
Last on the list is this freakishly large grasshopper. We found him on the defunct sliding board at the hotel swimming pool (that's another story). Look at the size of that thing. Birds won't even try to eat these things because they are too big and have spikes on the back of their legs that can hurt the bird. 


Friday, November 15, 2019

Mr. Potatohead

"It looks like a potato with legs". That's what Di said when she saw a photo of an Antpitta. You can be the judge.

Antpittas are a group of birds that make their living on the forest floor. They are most often heard but not seen. One of the best places to see Antpittas is in Ecuador at Refugio Paz de Las Aves (Peace of the Birds Sanctuary). The reason that this place is so special is because of this Angel. No really, Angel is his name. Angel is a farmer who figured out that he can make better money showing people Antpittas than actually farming.

Selfie with Angel Paz
He trains the birds to come out of the forest when he calls so that they can get a delicious meal of worms.
Yummy Antpitta Breakfast
Angel calls the birds by name - "Will-a-meeeee-na, Will-a-meeeeeeee-na" as he throws the worms out on a moss-covered log just off the forest path. "Will-a-meeeeee-na" and sure enough, the bird emerges from the dark forest.

Yellow-breasted Antpitta
She's a beauty and allows us to photograph her while she dines. She gobbles up the last worm and disappears back into the forest until tomorrow. Angel leads us to another path. "Sha-keeeee-ra, Sha-keeeee-ra". Same dance, different bird. Viola. Shakira appears for her breakfast.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Angel calls her Shakira because she moves like Shakira that singer. Watch how she wiggles.

The don't all have names. Angel used to have a Giant Antpitta called Maria but sadly the bird died after 15 years of fame. He calls out into the forest with a whistle that mimics the bird's call. Another bird emerges. 

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta
She's striking and doesn't seem to mind the paparazzi. We also saw a very secretive Moustached Antpitta. Angel asked us not to photograph the shy bird so that we didn't scare him away so no photos of him. 

After showing us the Antpittas, Angel invited us to the pavilion where his wife served coffee and Bolon de Verdes which are green plantain fritters. They were delicious! We ate our meal while watching some of the amazing hummingbirds featured in the last post. 

We saw 2 other Antpittas on our trip. This Tawny Antpitta accompanied us along our trail at Yanacoacha. 

Tawny Antpitta
And we found this Streak-breasted Antpitta in the rain forest at Playa de Oro. This one was the most wild of the bunch. I barely managed to get a photograph. 

Streak-breasted Antpitta
More birds and critters to follow. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Ecuador - Hummingirds

Ecuador is located in South America and as the name suggests is on the equator. Our gang just returned from a 10 day trip to explore the birds and nature of the country. We signed up for the trip last November so it was a long wait. The trip itinerary included a few days in the Andes mountains where we spent time in various locations and then ended with 4 days in the "Choco" region at a remote lodge.

The itinerary indicated that we could see as many as 600 bird species on the trip. We ended up seeing 360 species. 232 of those were life birds for me. There were so many birds that I have decided to break them up into multiple posts. This post concentrates on just the hummingbirds. The field guide lists 134 species possible - 134! We have exactly 1 specie here in Pennsylvania.

Our trip started on Sat Nov 2nd in Quito which is the capital of Ecuador and located at 9,340 feet elevation and  -0.20562° N latitude, -78.5088° E longitude. Our first stop was to a preserve called Yanacocha which is at 12,000 feet elevation. Joco Toco Conservation Fund helps to protect the area. It was pretty cool at this elevation. We needed jackets for sure. 

Who knew that we could find such cool birds and hummingbirds at such high elevation! 

The first hummer that I saw was this cinnamon colored bird called Shining Sunbeam. 

Shining Sunbeam
Its a cute bird but I didn't understand why it was called Shining Sunbeam until it turned around.

Shining Sunbeam
It should really be called "Rainbow Butt". Look at how it shines in the sunlight!

Next up, a little hummer called Golden-breasted Puffleg. Check out the white puffs on the legs. This dude was itching for a fight with any other hummer that flew past him. 

Golden-breasted Puffleg - ready for action
The most common hummer at Yanacocha was the Buff-winged Starfrontlet. What a name. 

Buff-winged Starfrontlet
And then my eyes almost popped out of my head when this bird arrived at the feeders. This is Sword-billed Hummingbird. Look at the size of that bill! It is designed to get nectar from really big flowers. He must have really good aim to get his bill in the feeder hole at that distance

Sword-billed Hummingbird
There were many other birds at this site but for now, just hummers. On Sunday, we headed out to a remote farm in the Andes located at lower elevation to see some amazing birds which I will tell you about in another post. The farmer has hummingbird feeders hanging around the pavilion where we had coffee and a delicious snack that his wife prepared. Here are some of the hummers from this site.

Andean Emerald isn't stunning but still really cute. This guy ruled the roost.

Andean Emerald
This Purple-bibbed Whitetip is aptly named. You can see both the bib and the white tips.

Purple-bibbed Whitetip
In the diminutive category, nothing beats this tiny Purple-throated Woodstar. She flies like a bumblebee!
Purple-throated Woodstar
Hermits are category of hummingbirds that have long curved bills. Here is White-whiskered Hermit coming in for some sugar water.

White-whiskered Hermit
In the afternoon, we headed to our 3rd hotel in 3 days. The hotel reminded me of an out-of-date Pocono lodge filled with dark wood paneling and smelling moldy. Our rooms were decorated in a Victorian theme with lacy pillow cases and valences around the bed posts. Not what I expected in Ecuador. Luckily, the hotel had some hummingbird feeders that attracted some amazing birds.

Of all of the hummers that I wanted to see, this Booted Racket-tail topped the list. I can't even!

Booted Racket-tail
Look at those "boots"!

Booted Racket-tail
This Violet-purple Coronet was a handsome devil - and I think he knows it too.

Violet-purple Coronet
The coup-de-gras of all hummers at this location had to be Violet-tailed Sylth. The bird has a really long tail which you may be able to see in this photo. He also has brilliant turquoise stripe on his head and purple throat patch that shines when the light hits it.

Violet-tailed Sylth
That's all great but it is nothing like the full Monty! Here he is showing off the crazy shining long tail. It was truly something to behold.
Violet-tailed Sylth
I'll stop there for now. We saw other hummingbirds throughout the 10 day excursion but it gets overwhelming after a while.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Circumnavigating Puerto Rico

I think that most people who visit Puerto Rico do so on a cruise or go to one hotel/resort and stay there. Most of the resorts are near the San Juan in the northeast part of the island. Lori and I were determined to go birding so we rented a car and headed out on Highway 2 eastbound from the airport. About 25 minutes later, we were heading south  and then 30 minutes later we were heading west on the same highway. 3 hours later, we arrived in the southwest corner of the island to start our birding adventure.

Puerto Rico has 15 or so "endemic" species that are only found on this island. We had a target list and hoped to find some of them. During our 2 days in the southwest, we birded 3 areas and did really well despite showing up at some of the parks when they were closed! We started with a quick drive around Bosque Estatal de Guanica (Guanica Dry Forest) where we found 3 life birds including Adelaide's Warbler. I posted this photo to Flickr and ended up with thousands of views and over a hundred people added it to their favorites list.

The following day, we went to Laguna Cartegena and ticked off 8 more lifers including this gaudy Red Bishop. They call it a Bishop because of the red "hood". We saw a few of these guys along the road into the lagoon.

We also found many Smooth-billed Ani along the road. These are pretty large and noisy birds but they fly away if you get too close. This guy apparently didn't get the memo on that and just sat on the fence right next to the car. Look at that giant beak.

Another bird that usually doesn't let you get too close is the Kestral. I noticed this guy had a lizard for lunch and slowly drove the car closer. He let us get a few shots before turning his lunch into take out. The gross part of the photo is that the lizard doesn't have a head. Yuck.

The next day, we finally made it to Cabo Rojo NWR which is supposed to be the best birding in Puerto Rico. We walked 2 miles on the mosquito infested paths and found another 4 life birds including the Troupial which is a type of Oriole native to Puerto Rico. 

One of the nice things about visiting the Caribbean or Central America in October is that you run into some old bird friends who have recently left our area for the winter. We saw over 50 Blackpoll Warblers at the park. 
And also found this Prothonotary Warbler stalking bugs in the low shrubs. 

We detoured off of Highway 2 to get to these birding locations. We also tried to go birding in Maracoa which is up in the mountains and ended up on some pretty rough roads which went straight up the mountain in one lane. I got a work out just turning the steering wheel trying to keep the car on the twisting mountain roads. It was really harrowing and all for nothing since it poured rain when we finally made it to the top of the mountain. We sat there for an hour before giving up and going back to the hotel. We did manage to find 3 life birds on the way including this Antillean Euphonia. What a wild colored bird. He has a sky blue head. 

We continued our Highway 2 journey heading west for a few minutes before turning north and eventually east to head back to San Juan and to the Caribe Hilton hotel where I was scheduled to attend a conference on Tuesday. 

Between working and schmoozing at the conference, I did manage to find time to head out to Puerto Rico's famous El Yunque Rain Forest and found another 4 life birds bringing the total to 24 for the trip. The drive to El Yunque not only provided more birds but also completed the full circuit of Highway 2.